Mo, one of the inmates in a maximum security prison where I conducted a seminar, was a very substantial fellow. While Mo did not quite meet the requirements of a sumo wrestler, he came close enough to command a great deal of respect. For all of his size and strength, he had lost virtually all of his front teeth. When Mo volunteered to provide special music for the seminar, my friend Dick Plowman, a former member of our church and prison ministry colleague, introduced Mo to the audience: “Now, let’s see, what number is Mo going to sing for us? Right! Anything he wants!”
Here was a man of great strength, a man most inmates would not wish to challenge or offend. Because of his strength, he could do anything he wanted within the limits of the prison system. The power and raw physical strength of an evil man is a frightening reality. The power of a good man is a comfort. But the other attributes a man possesses determines how his power is viewed.
In and of itself, God’s power is not nearly as comforting as when seen in light of several of His other attributes. Two of these attributes are the “goodness” of God and the “wisdom” of God. The God who is all-powerful is the same God who is good and wise; God’s power becomes a source of great comfort and encourage-ment to the Christian. This lesson considers the attribute of God’s goodness, and our following lesson will study the attribute of God’s wisdom. A brief review of some important truths about the goodness of God should help to show us the importance of studying God’s goodness.
1 Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His lovingkindness is everlasting (Psalms 107:1).
19 How great is Thy goodness, which Thou hast stored up for those who fear Thee, which Thou hast wrought for those who take refuge in Thee, before the sons of men! (Psalms 31:19).
5 Afterward the sons of Israel will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the LORD and to His goodness in the last days (Hosea 3:5).
The goodness of God is not only an attribute of God but a foundational truth every Christian should embrace. Consider some of the reasons God’s goodness is important to us.
(1) The “goodness” of God is prominent in the opening chapters of the Bible. Repeatedly, God pronounced everything which He created “good” (see Genesis 1:4, 10, 18; 1 Timothy 4:4). In chapter 2, God saw that it was “not good” for Adam to be alone, and so He created a wife for him (2:18-25). In the garden of Eden, where God had placed Adam and Eve, there was “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” From the fruit of this one tree, the man and woman were forbidden to eat. We shall return to this matter of “goodness” in the garden, for it is a vitally important truth. Suffice to say the issues of “goodness” and “evil” are prominent at the beginning of the Bible.
(2) The goodness of God appears to be the sum total of all of God’s attributes. The goodness of God may thus be viewed as one facet of His glorious nature and character and also the overall summation of His nature and character.
19 Then Moses said, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Exodus 33:19; see also Exodus 34:5-7).
(3) We cannot separate what is good from God. You cannot have goodness without God, just as you cannot have God without goodness. God alone is good:
2 I said to the LORD, “Thou art my Lord; I have no good besides Thee” (Psalms 16:2).
16 And behold, one came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” 17 And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is [only] One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:16-17).
No man is good:
1 (For the choir director. [A Psalm] of David.) The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good (Psalms 14:1; see Psalm 53:1; Romans 3:9-18).
God is the source of everything that is good:
17 Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow (James 1:17).
God does not withhold anything that is truly good from His children.
11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; The LORD gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly (Psalm 84:11).
We simply cannot separate “good” from “God.” Here is where our society, and especially our educational system, had better take note. You cannot teach values, you cannot teach morality, without teaching about God. “Be ye holy,” God said, “for I am holy” (see 1 Peter 1:16; Leviticus 11:44f.).
(4) Man’s eternal destiny is determined by his decision as to how one can truly be good in God’s sight (See John 5:28-29; Romans 3:1-26; Titus 3:3-7).
(5) Apart from the divine revelation of the Scriptures, we cannot recognize true goodness, for it cannot be understood apart from knowing God and seeing life from His perspective. This is precisely the point of Psalm 73 which we will now consider, for it gives us a radically different definition of “good.”
Asaph, a Levite who was chief of the musicians under David (1 Chronicles 16:4-7,37), composed Psalm 73. My conviction is that the central theme of Psalm 73 is the goodness of God. The first and the last verses of the psalm contain the word “good.” Through the course of time and this psalm, Asaph undergoes a radical change in his understanding of the meaning of the term “good.” Because Asaph’s misconception of the meaning of “good” is virtually the same as evangelical Christians today, we must understand the message of this psalm and the meaning of the term “good.”
Asaph describes a period in his life when he had serious spiritual struggles. His premise was the goodness of God, particularly His goodness to His own people, Israel: “Surely God is good to Israel, To those who are pure in heart!” (verse 1).
To Asaph, this affirmation of truth meant that because God was “good” to Israel, God’s blessings would constantly be poured out upon those Jews who were righteous. On the other hand, the unrighteous could expect many difficulties. Now there is an element of truth in this, as we can see from the blessings and cursings of Deuteronomy 28-30. But it was not altogether true, and this was evident even in the Book of Deuteronomy:
2 “And you shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. 3 And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3).
Asaph admits to his readers that he strayed far off course. He was so far from the truth that he came close to destruction. In his words, “his feet had almost slipped” (verse 2). He seems to be confessing that he considered giving up the faith and forsaking the way of righteousness, supposing that it was of no real benefit.
Asaph’s problem was largely due to his distorted perspective. First of all, he was envious of the wicked. Unlike Lot, whose righteous soul was vexed by the sin all about him, Asaph wished he could be in the sandals of those who were wicked. He did not hate their sin; he envied their success (verse 3). Second, he was self-righteous. He looked upon himself as being better than he was. He seems to have supposed he deserved God’s blessings and concluded his “righteous living” had been in vain:
13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, And washed my hands in innocence; 14 For I have been stricken all day long, And chastened every morning (Psalms 73).
These verses also suggest Asaph views his suffering as coming from God. God was punishing him, he supposed, for being godly. Third, Asaph seems to have been consumed with self-pity. It is really difficult to see life clearly when you are looking at it through tear-filled eyes. And these tears were the tears of self-pity.
I believe Asaph’s words in verses 4-9 which describe the wicked are a description of those whom Asaph saw in the congregation of Israelites who came to worship. Asaph is talking about wicked Jews rather than pagan Gentiles. I also believe Asaph’s analysis is highly distorted and inaccurate.
Asaph makes some very sweeping generalizations in the first half of the psalm, implying that all the wicked prosper and the righteous, which surely included him, suffer. He wrongly supposes the wicked are always healthy and wealthy and thinks none of the wicked experience the difficulties of life. Even in their death, they are spared from discomfort. He likewise thinks those who prosper are all arrogant, blaspheming God, daring Him to know or care about what the wicked are doing.
There is some measure of truth in this. Some of the wealthy wicked would be just as Asaph has described them. But Asaph has over-generalized, making it seem God blesses all the wicked and punishes all the righteous. The wicked flaunt their wickedness and are blessed. The righteous practice their righteousness and are punished for doing so. As far as Asaph is concerned, there is good reason to consider joining the wicked rather than fighting them (see verses 10-14).
But Asaph was wrong, and this he confesses at several points in the psalm.
2 But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling; My steps had almost slipped. 3 For I was envious of the arrogant, [As] I saw the prosperity of the wicked (verses 2-3).
15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,” Behold, I should have betrayed the generation of Thy children (verse 15).
21 When my heart was embittered, And I was pierced within, 22 Then I was senseless and ignorant; I was [like] a beast before Thee (verses 21-22).
The turning point in the psalm is verse 15. Up to this point, Asaph viewed life from a distorted human perspective. To him, the goodness of God meant health and wealth, not unlike the “good life gospeleers” of our own day. But, as Asaph admits, he was wrong. In verses 15-28, he explains why he was wrong, ending with an entirely different definition of “good.”
When Asaph came “into the sanctuary of God,” he was able to “perceive their end” (verse 17). Now Asaph viewed the prosperity of the wicked in the light of eternity rather than simply from the vantage point of time. Those who seemed to be doing so well in their wickedness Asaph now saw in great peril. Their feet were on a slippery place. In but a short time, they would face the judgment of God. Their payday for sin might not come in this life, but it would surely come in eternity:
18 Surely Thou dost set them in slippery places; Thou dost cast them down to destruction. 19 How they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors! 20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when aroused, Thou wilt despise their form (verses 18-20).
How foolish, even beastly, Asaph had been to think the wicked would get away with their sin, and there would be no day of reckoning. How foolish to conclude God was punishing him for avoiding the sinful ways of the wicked. Asaph now sees his relationship with God in its true light. Eternity holds for him the bright hope of God’s glorious presence. But in addition to this future blessing, Asaph has the pleasure of God’s presence in this life:
23 Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou hast taken hold of my right hand. 24 With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, And afterward receive me to glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven [but Thee]? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (verses 23-26).
Asaph now sees that the prosperity of the wicked has hardened their hearts toward God. They have become proud, arrogant, and independent of God. Asaph also sees his “affliction,” whatever that might be, as a source of great blessing. His suffering and agony drew him closer to God; the prosperity of the wicked drew them away from God. His trials were indeed a gift from God for Asaph’s good. His struggles had led him into a deeper intimacy with God and were thus worth all the agony and distress of soul. Trusting God and living a holy life are not just the means to eternal blessings; they are the way to great temporal blessings as well.
Now Asaph understands the “goodness” of God in a different way. He has a new definition for “good.” In verse 1, “good” really meant the absence of pain, difficulty, trouble, sorrow, ill health, or poverty. In verse 28, “good” means something far better than physical prosperity:
28 But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, That I may tell of all Thy works (verse 28).
Nearness to God—intimate fellowship with God—is our highest good. We may say then that whatever interferes with our nearness to God, our fellowship with Him, is actually evil. And whatever draws us into a deeper fellowship with God is actually “good.” When God brings suffering and adversity into our lives, our confidence in His goodness should not be undermined. Instead, we should be reassured of His goodness to us.
In the end, Job’s suffering brought him nearer to God; thus it was good, and God was good in afflicting him. Paul’s suffering brought him nearer to God, and he saw it as a blessing (Philippians 3:10). The chastening of the Lord in the life of the Christian is not only evidence of our sonship, it is God’s working in us for good (Hebrews 12:1-13; see Romans 8:28).
The goodness of God is a life-transforming truth. Let us conclude by considering ways the goodness of God should intersect our attitudes and actions.
(1) The goodness of God is a character trait which applies to every other attribute. God’s wrath is good. God’s holiness is good. God’s righteousness is good. God is good in His entirety. There is nothing about God that is not good. There is nothing God purposes for His children that is not good. God gives to His children only that which is good. And He withholds nothing good from us. God is good, and He is at work in our lives for good. Nothing which God creates, nothing which God accomplishes, is not good.14
We must take this truth of God’s goodness one more step. God allows nothing to happen to the Christian which is not good. We all know this passage well:
28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to [His] purpose (Romans 8:28).
We may be convinced of God’s goodness and yet doubt that everything which happens to us is good. We carefully avoid blaming God, because we know He is good. So we blame Satan for our trials and tribulations. Or, we can always blame people. May I remind you Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was brought about by a “messenger of Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7), and yet God permitted this so His strength might be manifested through Paul’s weakness (12:7-10). And the “evil” Joseph’s brothers intended against him God intended “for good” (Genesis 50:20). Whatever comes into the life of the Christian is a part of God’s purpose to bring about our good and His glory.
(2) We must conclude that teachers who tell us God wants only to bless us with healing and prosperity in this life are, in truth, false teachers. Their teaching leads Christians to the same conclusion Asaph reached in error, a conclusion which, upon reflection, he confesses to be evil and beastly. Knowing God is not the way to the “good life” as taught by the “good life gospeleers.” In fact, as Asaph indicates, along with countless others in the Bible, suffering is often the means by which we come to know God more intimately.
67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Thy word (Psalms 119:67).75 I know, O LORD, that Thy judgments are righteous, And that in faithfulness Thou hast afflicted me (Psalms 119:75).
18 That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death (Philippians 3:10).
7 And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me—to keep me from exalting myself! 8 Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
Years ago while I was in seminary, one of my professors, Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost, asked our class to pray for his wife. She was going to see the doctor because of some symptoms which might indicate cancer. Later, Dr. Pentecost reported to us the tests were negative, and his wife’s malady was not a malignancy. We all breathed a sigh of relief, and rightly so.
But Dr. Pentecost was not through with his report to us. He went on to challenge us concerning our definition of “good.” He indicated several people had responded something like “God is good!” to the report that his wife did not have cancer. “Yes,” Dr. Pentecost said, “God is good. But, men, I have to say to you that if the doctor’s report had been that my wife did have cancer, God is still good.” He knew what we also must know if we are to think biblically about the goodness of God—God is always good, whether He sends prosperity or pain, health or sickness.
(3) The goodness of God is evident in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the “good news” (Isaiah 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 61:6; Luke 1:19; 2:10; Acts 8:12; 13:32; Hebrews 4:2, 6), and good it is! God is good to all men in His common grace, showering blessings on the wicked and the righteous alike (Matthew 5:43-45; Acts 14:16-17). But God is particularly good to those who believe in the gospel.
The gospel is predicated on the truth that man is a sinner, deserving God’s eternal wrath (see Romans 1:18-3:23. This is the bad news of our sinful condition and the eternal wrath of God which it deserves. But the “good news” is that God in His goodness has made possible one way by which men may escape judgment, have their sins forgiven, and spend eternity in the blessed presence of God. That way is through the coming of Jesus Christ to live a perfect life, to die on the cross of Calvary in the sinner’s place, and to rise from the dead and ascend into heaven.
Nowhere is the goodness of God more evident than in the person of our Lord. In His goodness, God provided a way for sinners to be forgiven and to be declared righteous. It is not by any good works which we do, but on the basis of the goodness of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Romans 3:19-26; Titus 3:4-7). If you have never trusted in His saving work, I have words of exhortation for you,
8 O taste and see that the LORD is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him! (Psalms 34:8).
With this offer of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, I must also issue a word of warning. The goodness of God is directed toward our repentance (Romans 2:4). If we reject the goodness of God in Christ, if we reject the gospel, then we bring upon ourselves the divine wrath of God:
22 For I was ashamed to request from the king troops and horsemen to protect us from the enemy on the way, because we had said to the king, “The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him, but His power and His anger are against all those who forsake Him” (Ezra 8:22).
22 Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off (Romans 11:22).
(4) The goodness of God is a foundational truth that shapes our perspective toward God and His dealings with us in this life. The goodness of God is a fact to which the Bible often testifies. It is a fact which every Christian should believe and embrace. But more than this, it is a perspective through which all of life’s experiences should be viewed.
In the biblical account of the fall of Adam and Eve, it is significant that Satan’s attack was on this dimension of the character of God. It is true Satan virtually called God a liar, but the first attack of Satan was waged against the attribute of His goodness. It was a subtle attack, but one that should be obvious to the Christian who reads these words:
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; 3 but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, lest you die.’ “ 4 And the serpent said to the woman, “You surely shall not die! 5 For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:1-5).
God is good, and everything He created is good. But the one thing in the garden which was not “good” to eat was “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Satan’s seemingly innocent question was intended to undermine Eve’s confidence in the goodness of God. By the time Satan has finished, Eve has come to view God as the One who is less than good, and the forbidden fruit as that which is good. Once Eve doubted the goodness of God, it was a great deal easier for her to disobey Him. If God was not good and was not acting for her good, then why should she obey Him? Indeed, why should she not act independently of God in seeking her own good—the forbidden fruit?
Satan first changed Eve’s perspective of God, and then he was able to persuade her to disobey God by eating the forbidden fruit. The goodness of God is a perspective from which we can and should view all of God’s commands, including His prohibitions. It is apparent from what happened as a result of the eating of the forbidden fruit that God forbade that fruit for man’s good. The prohibition was an expression of God’s goodness. She did not understand why God forbade it, but knowing that God was good should have been enough. What a good God forbids must be evil, and what a good God commands must be good. We must know the truth found in the Word of God to avoid Satan when he tempts us to change our perspective of God. He often does this by causing us to doubt God and His Word.
My dear friend from seminary days, Tony Emge, phoned last week to tell me his wife had died of cancer. I flew to California to attend the funeral and be with Tony and his children. I do not understand all God purposed to accomplish through Cathie’s tragic death, but the goodness of God gives me a perspective through which I can view it in faith, giving thanks for all He has done (see 1 Thessalonians 5:18).
In the midst of sorrow and unanswered questions, there are certain truths I know to be true. God is good. For the Christian, I know this good God causes all things to work together for good, for all whom He has chosen and who have placed their trust in Him (Romans 8:28). I know Cathie Emge’s death came from the hand of our good God and that He is using it for good. I even can reflect on some of the ways this tragedy is being used for good.
First, I already know Cathie’s death is for her good. The apostle Paul looked forward to the possibility of his death, knowing that to be with Christ is far better (Philippians 1:23) because to be absent from the body means the Christian is present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). Second, Cathie’s death has a good purpose for those who are unsaved. It is a reminder of the certainty of death, sometimes much sooner than we expect. It has provided the opportunity for Christians to demonstrate the reality of their faith in the darkest hours of human experience. It gave the opportunity for the gospel to be clearly communicated at her funeral. And it would seem that already at least one person has come to faith as a result of Cathie’s death.
As I thought of Cathie’s husband and my friend, Tony, it occurred to me that Cathie’s death is also for his good. I had never made this connection before, but I think it is a legitimate application of this text:
19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
While thinking about her death before the funeral, it occurred to me we were laying up treasure at the funeral ceremony. Cathie was treasured by her friends and loved ones far more than money. To remain here on earth was to remain subject to corruption (see 2 Corinthians 4:16). To be present with the Lord is to be removed from all corruption (see 1 Corinthians 15:42-53). And to realize that Cathie is now in heaven makes those who love and miss her hunger all the more for heaven as well. How good God is, even in the death of our loved ones!
May God grant that His goodness becomes a truth we not only accept, but embrace, so that it becomes the perspective from which we view all of the events of our lives.
“There is such an absolute perfection in God’s nature and being that nothing is wanting to it or defective in it, and nothing can be added to it to make it better. ‘He is originally good, good of Himself, which nothing else is; for all creatures are good only by participation and communication from God. He is essentially good; not only good, but goodness itself: the creature’s good is a super-added quality, in God it is His essence. He is infinitely good; the creature’s good is but a drop, but in God there is an infinite ocean or gathering together of good. He is eternally and immutably good, for He cannot be less good than He is; as there can be no addition made to Him, so no subtraction from Him’ (Thos. Manton). God is summum bonum, the highest good.”15
God is summum bonum, the chiefest good . . . “All that emanates from God—His decrees, His creation, His laws, His providences—cannot be otherwise than good: as it is written, ‘And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good’” (Gen. 1:31).16